Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic and co-founding developer of WordPress, delivered his annual “State of the Word” at WordCamp US in St Louis last Saturday. State of the Word is Matt’s keynote talk, and the main medium through which Matt updates the community on what’s happening and what’s next with WordPress.

This year’s State of the Word recapped what has happened this year, and was relatively light on what’s coming next. I won’t recap the whole thing – others have that covered – but below are some notable points:

  • A lot of good stuff has gone into WordPress this year, including significant improvements to the block editor (Gutenberg), Site Health, and a really nice new default theme.
  • Matt acknowledges last year was a “Controversial Year”, and read out some negative tweets and comments about Gutenberg, and the how the release happened. Matt said “we learned a lot about how we communicate change”, but didn’t go into any specifics. There has been progress this year, and it was interesting to hear of the Design Experiments plugin, and there is a lot of content on the Make blogs (a good example), but I would have liked to hear more. 
  • ▓▓▓░░░░░░░░░░░░: Gutenberg is 20% of the way done. (I tweeted this at the time and was very pleased with myself)
  • We’re in stages 1 and 2 of Gutenberg, which covers better editing and better site customisation, and stages 3 and 4 covering better collaboration on content and multilingual sites, are coming next. I really would have liked more detail on this section; we only briefly touched on it, and we also heard this last year.
  • There is some pretty cool stuff being done with Gutenberg, including rtCamp creating an email newsletter with the block editor, and Pragmatic creating an importer for Word docs, with their full formatting, into the block editor.
  • There was a lot of discussion around contributing to WordPress, the community, and how to get involved.
  • The presentation slides were built in Gutenberg, which was a pretty cool feat.

All of the above was good, but relatively little of this was new. That was my main takeaway, and speaking to others afterwards they felt the same. Matt is clearly thinking a lot further into the future of WordPress than everyone else. He often talks about WordPress as his “life’s work”, and will casually mention “decades”, when most of us are thinking one or two years at most. I would have loved to hear more about the future.

The mood going into the event was fairly positive: as I wrote last week, the mood last year was negative, but for the most part people are on board with Gutenberg and are building cool things with it. There’s a recognition from the community that the block editor has improved significantly this year, but still frustration about how the original release was handled. Matt mentioned the load time of the block editor has halved this year, which is cool, but should the editor have been released when it took eight seconds to load? It’s great the load time is down to two seconds, but c’mon it’s frustrating to celebrate the improvements without acknowledging the context or specific lessons learned.

Further, framing last year as a “Controversial Year”, as Matt did, suggests that the controversy is finished. I’m not cynical enough to think this was a deliberate ploy, but it does show us Matt thinks this issue is over. The main mechanism through which I would have liked to have seen this addressed is governance, but as I’ll come to in a minute, the answer is more or less “no change” on WordPress’ governance.

One of the most curious parts of the keynote was where Matt pulled out assorted statistics: the time the block editor takes to load, how many posts are created with the block editor, the blocks people are searching for, and a couple of others. This is one of the more frustrating things to deal with in the WordPress ecosystem: it’s unclear where and how those statistics are gathered, and who has access to them. Are they from WordPress.org, and if so what’s collected and who has access? Or, are they collected through Jetpack and/or WordPress.com? Clearly some data is being used to improve WordPress, but one gets the impression it’s mainly Automattic which has this. I’d love to know if this is correct, or if I’ve not looked in the right place. If you know, please reply and let me know!

The Q&A section was good. These can be a bit hit and miss, but the questions were nearly all thoughtful and covered a good range of issues. Marieke van de Rakt, the CEO of Yoast, asked about increasing adoption of Gutenberg, as Yoast see only half of sites using it. Matt said as it gets better people will switch, but also disputed that half of sites haven’t switched, saying it was only one third. Exchanges on Twitter after suggested Marieke was right, which tacitly suggests it’s still not good enough for most people. That’s one of the main things still to work on.

There was also a good question about privacy, diversity, and inclusivity policies from Rian Kinney which hopefully can prompt some progress, effectively managing stakeholders from Christie Chirinos, and a great one on the “system” of WordPress’ governance from Milana Cap.

Milana asked what the name is for WordPress’ governance system, citing that she grew up under communism and now lives in a democracy, and that these are clear names. The question was good because it left it open for Matt to respond: his response was that the “WordPress system” should be what it’s called, and that everything is in public on Trac and Slack, and the Make blogs. That’s literally true, but it’s not the whole picture. Matt appears on the Wikipedia page for “Benevolent Dictator for Life”, and acknowledged as such on a recent interview with DHH we linked a couple of weeks ago:

“I really like the benevolent part. And again, I think on the dictator part, I don’t love that terminology… I think that term started as a joke. There is something interesting that with a lot of these Open Source projects there’s almost nothing you can name on the list that has a committee-based leadership structure. And I think about that all the time. Like, why is it difficult for committees or an alternative governance structures to create really great software, backend software, frontend software. You typically have something more like a director of a movie or a conductor of an orchestra. There’s no perfect analogies because it’s software, it’s different. But you typically have a person with whom a great deal of decision-making power for determining the platform rests and that is often a good thing for the health and quality of the platform, and I don’t mind it as much because we have these checks and balances with Open Source forking or all sorts of different ways that people can opt out of that person’s power.”

Matt Mullenweg

The idea here is that if you don’t like the direction of WordPress you can fork WordPress, but I really don’t think that’s realistic anymore. WordPress has so much momentum, so much market power, and the sunk cost for the community is so high, that that’s not a realistic choice most people are able to make. If, as it sounds like, Matt’s main “check and balance” is “vote with your feet”, then I don’t think that’s a valid balance. I’d be interested to discuss this further.

WordPress has come further than anyone could have imagined in the last 16 years, and I do think we’re on the cusp on seeing significant investment in WordPress businesses which can really drive the functionality forwards. That’s been a key theme we’ve covered this year, and coming out of WordCamp US I’m more convinced and excited about that than ever before. It’s pretty wild that such as a small group of people makes the software that so much of the internet relies on, and I am excited to see what that group will be able to do with better resources.

This first appeared in MasterWP, a weekly newsletter for WordPress professionals which Alex co-authors.

About Alex Denning

Hey, I'm Alex! I'm the Founder of Ellipsis, and I co-curate the really good weekly newsletter MasterWP. I'm @AlexDenning 👏

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